When Famous Stars Play Famous People: Who Killed It On-Screen And Who Was A Mess?

July 30, 2012  |  
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R&B singer Ne-Yo made headlines recently when he revealed that he turned down the chance to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he didn’t want to gain 30 pounds. He may have passed on a career defining opportunity, but after his role in Red Tails, maybe not…

In the acting world, getting the chance to play someone famous in a biopic is sure to take a career to the next level, and these days, everybody is doing it. Usher has already spoken out about the high expectations he has for his upcoming role as Sugar Ray Leonard. He wants an Oscar. He’d be following in the footsteps of fellow entertainers and actors who have stepped into the shoes of iconic public figures and created a path towards podiums in doing so.


Source: totallytop10.com


Denzel Washington
Denzel was robbed of an Oscar for his portrayal of slain civil rights activist Malcolm X in 1993. Denzel assumed the identity of the complex man with ease and grace. He spoke the way Malcolm spoke. He carried himself the way Malcolm did and he made people feel as passionately about the Nation of Islam as the leader did with his nuanced performance. Denzel thoroughly inhabited the role of Malcolm through his cadence, posture and every inflection to the point where it felt he was no longer acting. He became Malcolm Little turned unconventional hero. Denzel may not have won the Oscar for the biopic, but the universal praise for his performance should be a fitting consolation.

Source: neorepublica.com
Source: ddotomen.com

In the arena of music, Beyoncé stands alone as an entertainer. She can sing, dance and put on quite a show. But there was a lot of back and forth about whether or not she could play blue’s legend Etta James in Cadillac Records. The reviews for her performance were mixed. You never forgot that Beyoncé was Beyoncé, even though she gave it a good try (definitely a better performance than her past ones). The essence of Etta was there in the scenes but it lingered as an afterthought.

Source: swaggeroriginal.com
Source: blastro.com

Jamie Foxx
The funnyman is always quick with a joke to make audiences laugh, but he showed his full range to entertain with his starring role as Ray Charles. Jamie got the inside track on what it was like to be Ray from the man himself. The legend assisted with the movie and helped Jamie with his performance, even though he passed before it was released. Jamie’s study of those lessons resulted in Oscar winning validation. He embodied the spirit and mannerism of a man who had no sight but whose visionary life inspired.

Source: jhrlmusic.com
Source: btchflcks.com

Angela Bassett
For all of the accolades that Angela Bassett has received in her enduring career, she remains very much underrated. That may seem like a contradiction but it’s the truth. She has tackled the lives of Betty Shabazz, Rosa Parks, Katherine Jackson and Voletta Wallace, but with no Oscar gold. Last but not least, Angela was simply the best as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It. Angela has played such a diverse group of characters, but each performance has stood alone and has never been the same. She makes it look so easy that it is easy to forget that it takes incredible skill.

Source: dontstopthepop.blogspot.com
Source: fernrocks.wordpress.com

Laurence Fishburne
All roles are not created equal and the role of abusive Ike Turner is not one that was going to make any actor look good to an audience. Tina Turner’s much maligned ex-husband was the villain for good reason and it would’ve been easy to portray him in that one note description. Laurence resisted the urge, opting instead for a more layered portrayal that helped to explain the madness behind the man. He played the role with vigor. You felt each slap he gave Tina and wanted to punch him back on her behalf. When an actor can make you feel that strongly, that is a gift and Laurence was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

Source: bluesart.at
Source: blog.cleveland.com

Halle Berry
When it comes to Halle’s acting ability, there seems to be a division. There are those who believe she is capable. Others protest that she gets by on her beautiful looks and for what she’s willing to do on-screen. When she took on the role of Dorothy Dandridge, she silenced some of her critics. Halle infused her portrayal with a fragile side that has been a trademark of her own life. It was hard to tell where Halle ended and Dorothy began. It was a question that was answered with many awards for Halle, including a Golden Globe in 2000.

Source: blog.gk-films.com

Will Smith
Will is one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. He knows how to deliver a line, and a funny one at that, but in the movie Ali, he had to be the greatest and throw punches. Will said it was a challenge bringing Muhammad Ali to the big screen. He gave it his best. The performance wasn’t a knockout blow but was on the receiving end of an Oscar nomination. For his next biopic, Will has his sights set on playing President Obama.

Source: youngmilly.com
Source: fanpop.com

Jennifer Lopez
Jennifer was still new on the scene when she brought the tragic life and death of Selena to the movie theaters. Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a beloved Tejano star on the brink of crossing over into the mainstream when she was gunned down at 23. Her untimely passing provided the platform Jennifer needed to make a name for herself with her vibrant characterization of the fallen musician.

Source: smashyaoutofthegame.blogspot.com

Source: blogs.inlandsocal.com

Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman is an actor that long ago proved the depth of his talents, but he reminded audiences just how formidable he was with his turn as Nelson Mandela. In 2009, Morgan transformed himself into the former South African president in Invictus. He has been “God,” and Joe Clark, but there was a new poignancy to his adaptation of a man whose life and legacy is known the world over.

Source: huffingtonpost.com

Stephanie Guerilus is a multimedia journalist and author. Follow her @qsteph

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  • queenbee2u

    Beyonce just needs to give up acting period and stick with what she is great at and thats singing, dancing and performing!! she’s not the worst actress but definitely not believable the only one worth watching her in is The fighting temptations and that was easy for any decent actress. but Angela Basset is definitely slept on….she kills every role….Halle the only movie she ever did that i truly liked was losing isaiah and Queen…she’s not very believable to me…Jamie foxx changed the game with Ray dont think he can top it lol

  • Leciab27

    ILovee bio pics I’ve seen all of these, I really love ones about singers..Sissy Spacek in Coal Minors Dayghter, and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line.. Both really good movies As are all of the ones on the list

  • Kay

    I’m sorry but my left toe when I’m playin “little piggie went to the market” with children is a more talented actress than beyonce .

  • TraceFace

    No Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King? No Lou Diamond Philips as Richie Valens in La Bamba?

    • Jeffrey Wright as Muddie Waters! He nailed it! This man is truly talented. I had no idea he played the Hispanic gang/drug leader in “Shaft”. Wow!! Denzel kills it everytime, the man should have a closet full of Oscars. I was so disinterested in Will Smith’s portrayal of Muhammad Ali, I fell asleep trying to watch the movie. The second time I tried to give it another chance….same result! LOL! The only part that was remotely exciting was Jada’s part.

  • KalifaWilliams

    angela bassett has been repeatedly cheated out of her Oscars….
    she is one of the best actresses and deserves to be recognized for her talent

  • wlknluv

    I didn’t see morgan’s portray as nelson but i know he put it down. denzel is the man and angela and lawrence are underated.

  • shame on you

    Outstanding work…but let not forget Jeffery Wright in his role as Dr. Martin Luther King he was great as he is in everyone he plays very underrated… Bey Bey in Etta James was ok not great but worth watching as much as i dont like JO-L she can act and dance MUCH better then she can sing she became Selena Larry Fishburn is my man he mad Ike Turner human that acting

  • IllyPhilly

    No, a mess for Diana Ross as a very inaccurate Lady Day?

    • shame on you

      that goes with out saying they screwed her over…she was great

  • Just me

    Have to say I loved J-LO playing Selena…if anyone has ever watched the story behind Selena I would have to say JLO nailed it…and the Selena’s fans initially werent behind the idea of JLO playing her but in the end she ended up doing a great job!!!

  • Childfree Diva

    All the actors and actresses listed did a bang up job, IMO, of their characters except Beyonce as Etta James. Hell to the no! Bad choice. 😛 Angela Bassett worked the hell out of Tina Turner!!

  • vintagebrat

    Anytime Beyonce talks period I’m no longer interested. She just comes across as being, dare I say, slow. I wish they would stop allowing her to buy her way into these acting roles that she does not deserve or portray well. As much as I love Columbus Short and Idris Alba, watching Cadillac Records and Obsessed are excruciatingly painfull.

    • IllyPhilly

      Obsessed made my eyes puke

      • Oh No! You are too funny. I’ve got to remember that one.

    • Hahahahahahaha!

  • kb

    Bey as Etta!! Awful casting and awful acting on her part! Even the late great Ms Etta herself said she didnt want “that B playing her in the movie”. And “B” did not stand for Beyonce!!!

  • Come on now – missing Forest Whitaker as either Charlie Parker (Clint Eastwood’s “Bird”) or Idi Amin (“Last King of Scotland” where FW won his Best Actor Oscar)??? Total Overlook, MN.

    • sammi_lu

      Whitaker did his thing on the “Last King…” it’s just something creepy about his acting when he portrays a troubled or dark character that pulls you in and comes off believable.

      • He says that he stays in that character until the film is done. People said when he was playing Idi Amin, he was hard to live with.

      • Completely agree – especially creepy as by most accounts he’s a nice guy IRL.

  • bk

    Say what you want about Beyonce on-screen, she sung the hell out of Etta’s music (may she RIP).

    • roles

      Hollered the music… Etta sung the music. There was depth and with Etta, bey just wailed. IMHO.

      • c

        Your comment made me laugh at loud! My mom says that all the time about Beyonce and my aunt used to say that about Whitney Houston.

      • U r clearly hating because anyone with ears knows that Beyonce sang “I’d rather Go Blind” perfectly. And I’m not even a big fan of hers. She sang it better than Etta.

        • NO ONE sings Etta’s songs better than Etta.

  • KJ23

    The thing that kept on taking me out of the picture with Beyonce was her singing. Her voice is such a brand on it’s own that whenever she sang Etta Jame’s part in her signature voice, I was no longer looking at Etta James, I was looking at Beyonce in a blonde wig, and I think that’s what a lot of people were feeling. I don’t think she was bad, but maybe if she’d lip synced the songs her portrayal might have been more highly held.

    • You are so right. It would have been better if she would have lip synced. Etta was quoted as saying she hated Beyonce’s singing her song.

    • that wasn’t a wig… that was BEYONCE’S actual Hair

  • bri

    I’ve watched all the movies and I thought they all did great jobs.

  • Denzel was truly robbed! He embodied Malcolm X like NO ONE else ever could. Watching that movie you will definitely forget that Denzel is acting. The way he spoke, walked, looked, and smiled were incredible….In my opinion, Malcolm X was the best biopic film ever created…again…my opinion 🙂

    • Oh my goodness. Didn’t he play the heck out of that roll? But…he usually does.

  • The casting director who thought Flex could play MJ needed to be fired.

    • Crystal

      No he shouldn’t be fired….that decision deserves for that man to be pimp slapped and pistol whipped.

      • yeah i was thinkin along the lines of dude being shot… i mean whose idea was it to put that golden sheen on him towards the end?

    • AfricanBambi

      hahaha Too funny….that one line by Flex in the film.. “don’t look at me…” *forced MJ voice*

      • Is It 5:00 Yet?

        Or when he was playing with that little white boy…”aww!! My nose!” I was one the floor rolling.

    • noneya

      Im truly surprised Flex wasnt on the list…hahahaha

    • IllyPhilly

      That movie was so bootleg. I was CTFU!!

    • That movie was to funny LMFAO!!!!!

    • queenbee2u

      omg that was soooo awful that should be the end of flex’s career lol it was tragic #epicfail

    • Is It 5:00 Yet?

      I was rolling on the floor in every scene? Then they had the nerve to throw some powder on him to make it look like his sling got lighter over the years. A hot mess indeed.

  • sista2sista

    unfair assessment of beyonce only because she had the least known character to portray for the typical film goer at the time it was released. c’mon, she was up against the portrayals of stars like Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Ray Charles…even though older these are heavy hitters in their fields (literally for Ali). Not saying she is great but this one was just a little unfair.

    • realadulttalk

      It’s called research…they did it…she did not. Most actors don’t just walk in and portray someone…if they can they first meet with that person…get to know obscure things about them and learn things like their mannerisms and little quirks that make them unique.

      • noree

        Of course she did research she visited I think an hospice for drug addict to help her get into the character. She’s a singer who did quite well compared to her performances in othe movies. But when it comes to Bey hate comes before logical judgement from many people. They try so hard to discredit everything she does **shrugs**
        I’m surprised there’s not forest whitaker for ‘the last king of scotland’ he was so believable that I hated him after that movie. he scared the hell out of me it was amazing

        • realadulttalk

          Please note that meeting the person they are portraying would be the most important part of research. I personally don’t think she did a good job. Better than other things she’s done…but not touching what a real actress could have done. I never believed she was Etta…she never trapped me in her role with her. I think you were so quick to think someone might be attacking her that you did not give any thought to the words I wrote.

        • Duni1

          I think when people say “research” they mean talk to the person they are potraying. If the person happens to be dead watch any video, listen to any audio and talk to any living family members. Going to a hospice to talk to drug addicts doesn’t help you understand what the person, you are portraying, is going through. She would have been better then what she was, had she done that. Mind you, Etta James is alive and complained she didn’t get a chance to tell her side of the story.

      • Exactly!

    • nyc0314

      I understand what u meant but I have to disagree. It shouldn’t matter what character u play as an actress. YOU are the actress so your job is to make the audience get interested in whatever character you play. Your acting skills should bring more attention to the character ur portraying not the other way around. Regardless of who ur playing you make the character popular. Bey is just not an actress at this point in her life. The sooner we accept that the sooner we can build a bridge n get over it.

      • halfpint

        You mean the sooner she accepts she is not an actress.

        • ATF

          HA! Cosign…I LOVE Beyonce as an entertainer on stage but as an actress?! Nope…I never feel it!